Ailish Fowler on her love of Baudeliare
Charles Baudelaire is remembered in the popular imagination as a drug-addicted, washed-out, debauching poet, and lucky heir to a large fortune. His poetic work, Les Fleurs du mal, still inspire today’s generation. But why? When his reputation is characterised by seedy metaphors and phrases and his crude voice offended many readers at the time. Despite all this, it is Baudelaire’s voice that has persisted and still resonates in ears of the impressionable younger generations.
T.S Eliot praised Baudelaire, writing that he was ‘the greatest exemplar in modern poetry in any language’. He was also a hero to the singers and counterculture stars in the ‘60s, including Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison. Mick Jagger claimed that the song Sympathy for the Devil came from ‘my Baudelaire books’. Baudelaire’s fame has endured and, if anything, has grown. Today’s young writers still try to mimic him.
But it is his prose poetry that I find most interesting. His first sequence, La Presse, was published in 1862 and his Petits Poemes en Prose was published posthumously in 1869. (Later entitled Le Spleen de Paris). This radical departure from the themes of Les Fleurs du Mal shows a change in point of view; a withdrawal from the actions of narrative or drama and a move towards the bystander viewpoint.
The focus in these prose poems is on the narrator: the ‘flaneur’. Set against an urban backdrop, Baudelaire writes about crowds of people and turns their distressing lives into fiction. Perhaps this is a way to cope with a numbing reality of urban life? It is often regarded as one of the original pieces of urban poetry, one that focuses on the grim reality, the in-between, the things that make us avert our eyes.
Baudelaire is credited with coining the term, ‘modernity’. His verse represents that ephemeral experience where moments are captured for a fleeting second and then lost again. He started a trend which made the poet responsible for capturing those moments of ordinary bliss, which many modern-day readers now crave.
Arthur Rimbaud, one of Baudelaire’s admirers, also incorporates the ‘flaneur’ viewpoint in this writing to allow an external perspective, and thus, an objective view. This panoptic voice encapsulates a city’s voice: a persona that continuously watches, but hasn’t the words to talk. The voice of a ‘flaneur’ is detached from the feelings of the poem, with only a few instances when we are allowed inside the minds of the characters described.
Baudelaire described the ideal of a prose poem as a miracle he dreamt of and an ideal that obsessed him. I think that sometimes you must confront the unconfronted to find your poetic voice. Tradition must be challenged for a writer to find peace in their writing. I think Baudelaire found his sense of peace in prose poetry. It is present in the unstoppable, somewhat obnoxious voice. The voice that speaks without instruction. This is the voice that fuels a prose poem and makes a reality out of Baudelaire’s dream.
Below is an example of Baudelaire’s prose poetry, taken from The Poems and Prose poems of Charles Baudelaire. It is under the subheading, ‘Little Poems in Prose’.
One must be for ever drunken: that is the sole question of importance. If you would not feel the horrible burden of Time that bruises your shoulders and bends you to the earth, you must be drunken without cease. But how? With wine, with poetry, with virtue, with what you please. But be drunken. And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace, on the green grass by a moat, or in the dull loneliness of your chamber, you should waken up, your intoxication already lessened or gone, ask of the wind, of the wave, of the star, of the bird, of the timepiece; ask of all that flees, all that sighs, all that revolves, all that sings, all that speaks, ask of these the hour; and wind and wave and star and bird and timepiece will answer you: "It is the hour to be drunken! Lest you be the martyred slaves of Time, intoxicate yourselves, be drunken without cease! With wine, with poetry, with virtue, or with what you will."
I have been really influenced by Baudelaire, especially during my English Literature and Creative Writing course at Newcastle University where I first encountered his work. Like many, I’d never been exposed to prose poetry and found the style utterly innovative. Now, looking back, it’s funny to think I was so naïve about the history of the poetic form. I now write a lot of prose poetry, as well as less structured poems written in free verse, which I regularly post on my blog. I’m now living and working in London, finding any moment to write down my thoughts and then later try and translate them into poetry. Moving from Newcastle to London has changed my voice massively. I now feel like I am in fact a ‘flaneur’, set against my own urban landscape, trying to make sense of the chaos.
Ailish Fowler's prose poem will be included in The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry. You can follow her blog here: